My trip to the heart of cattle feeding country last week raised the question of whether grass-fed beef is really worse for the environment than grain-fed beef.

There’s a lot to consider: Water consumption, methane gas emissions, the impacts of growing grain for feed, transportation impacts, air and water quality impacts from feed lots … the list goes on.

Washington State University researcher Judith Capper has found that feeding cattle grain on feed lots uses less land than feeding them only grass. It shortens the amount of time it takes to raise cattle to market weight, which means each cow requires less water and produces less methane. She also found that grain-fed cattle produce a third less methane than grass-fed because of how they digest the different feeds, a finding that is backed up by another study in Australia.

But many have challenged Capper’s findings, arguing that grass-fed cattle help sequester carbon in pasture, and that the impacts to water and air quality are worse on feed lots. They’ve also questioned whether a co-author from Elanco, a company that supplies food and medicine to feed lots, might have influenced the outcome of Capper’s research. 

The Environmental Working Group actually has a meat eaters guide that concludes – after a lifecycle analysis of beef and other meats – that grass fed beef is better for the environment.

“We strongly disagree with Capper’s findings,” said Kari Hamerschlag, food and agriculture analyst for the Environmental Working Group. ”…she fails to recognize the well documented multifaceted environmental benefits from well managed grass fed operations and the tremendous negative impacts that large-scale confined feedlots have on air and water quality.”

Hamerschlag said Capper doesn’t properly account for the water use in grass-fed systems, doesn’t give enough credit to the carbon sequestration benefits of raising cattle entirely on grass, and

For a firsthand perspective, I called Joe Pestana, who raises about 100 head of grass-fed cattle in Langlois.

It usually takes him a little more than two years to raise the calves to market weight. Then, he drives the cattle to the slaughterhouse and delivers the meat directly to his customers.

“It is more expensive to produce,” he said. “It takes a lot of land – good land. It takes irrigation rights. It takes a lot of grass. If you really wanted to feed the whole country a good protein source, I don’t know if we have the pasture and irrigation to make that much.”

He and others note that grass-fed beef is healthier for people who eat it, and more natural for the cows.

“Grain really isn’t their natural food,” Pestana said.

Michael Pollan argues in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” that grass-fed beef has a lighter carbon footprint because of the fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels required to produce the grain for feed lots.

Grass-fed cattle produce do more methane because it’s harder to digest grass than grain. However, some argue grass that is continually grazed by grass-fed cattle sequesters enough carbon to make up the difference in methane.

This story in Time Magazine explains:

It works like this: grass is a perennial. Rotate cattle and other ruminants across pastures full of it, and the animals’ grazing will cut the blades — which spurs new growth — while their trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. The plant’s roots also help maintain soil health by retaining water and microbes. And healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture even gave out a $550,000 grant to study the potential for carbon offset credits on grazing land in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

This Washington Post blogger reviewed several studies and decided it’s hard to say whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef is better for the Earth – in part because they’re both pretty bad.

“No matter how you slice it,” he wrote, “eating beef will never be the greenest thing you do in a day.”

He cites an estimate by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan that producing 2.2 pounds of beef emits more greenhouse gases than driving 155 miles.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s study of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with consumption in Oregon found red meat and dairy products have the highest carbon footprint of all the foods Oregonians eat.

However, I talked with Kay Teisl, director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. She said it’s important to look at the impacts of the alternatives to beef, and recognize that grazing cattle helps stabilize soil, control weeds, and reduce the risk of wildfire. She also cited a report by the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded livestock production contributed 2.8 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. from 1990 to 2007 compared with 26 percent from transportation.

She sent a letter to DEQ last year taking “extreme objection” to the agency’s report, which she said suggested Oregonians should reduce the amount of meat they eat.

“If domesticated livestock were reduced or even eliminated,” she wrote, “the question of what ‘substitute’ greenhouse gases would be produced in their place has never been estimated.”